Paul Havas

A life of painting

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Paul Havas, best remembered for his beautiful landscape paintings, was born in 1940 in a New Jersey town named Orange. After receiving his MFA from the University of Washington, he first attracted attention in Seattle for paintings of trucks writer Sheila Farr described as being “Big, striking…very gutsy.”

Havas trained at Syracuse and the University of Washington in the prevailing idiom of abstract expressionism, but he soon surrendered to his love of the outdoors—which included geology, hiking, fishing and mountain climbing. And according to art critic Mathew Kangas, he abandoned abstraction to “reconnect with art-historical precedents” such as Cezanne, Bierstadt, and Constable.

In 1970, Havas built a house on Fir Island, where he founded his career on the beauties of the Skagit Valley. Even after returning to Seattle 14 years later, the Skagit remained his own “wonderland” and he continued to paint its “natural and altered landforms.” In his notebook he exclaimed, “Oh to be able to ride the back of a marsh hawk above the barley fields and tide flats!”

By all accounts, Havas was a generous person who was glad to teach and share his ideas about history, literature and art. He formed close friendships with other artists, especially Clayton James, who accompanied him on expeditions into the riverscapes, mountains and plains of the Northwest.

The fascinating sweep of Havas’ career can be seen through March at the Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA) in a comprehensive retrospective exhibit of his finest works, “A Life of Painting.”

His early “Edge of Town” (1970), and “Looking Down” (1974) reveal the modernist influence of Mondrian. This legacy persists in ”Barn” (1980) and even “First and Virginia” (1989), which is another “looking down” painting, in which he overlays a vivid rectangle of light on a quiet, nighttime intersection.

But Havas is most remembered for magnificent landscapes. “View Toward Lummi” (1998) is a panorama, 10 feet wide. The brushwork is diffuse, suggesting mist in the air. “Tidal Marsh at Skagit Bay” (1996) is a stunning example of a Skagit landscape: lowering gray clouds, brilliant yellow-orange field, blue water, distant green trees. 

“Willapa Reflections” (2006) is a conventional composition but arrests the viewer by its generous size, fine brushwork and the visual intensity of its color values.

The reputation of Havas, who died at 72 five years ago, is debated. Francine Seders, a prominent gallery owner who championed Northwest greats such as Mark Tobey, considers him one of the best painters of the Pacific Northwest—whose “reputation has not reached a national level yet.”

Conversely, Seattle Times reviewer Gayle Clemans feels his work displays a feeling of detachment even as he carefully observes and records his surroundings. “We are placed within the landscape, but observe from a distance,” he says.

Nevertheless, the mountain paintings make a powerful impression. Visitors to MoNA can see the actual sketches and notebooks upon which Havas based such monumental works as “Rock in Cloud” (1990) and “Formations on Chikaim Ridge” (1990).

For me, the painterly quality of these is flawless, equaling the highest standard of realist landscapes, like those of Alfred Bierstadt and Lawren Harris. His unusual, lofty vantage point has something to do with the effect. His artistic predecessors probably didn’t climb the mountains, but Paul Havas shares his joy of being on top of the world.

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